“City of Ember” – Not Quite the Living End – 2 popcorns

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

A post-apocalyptic primer on government corruption, the PG-rated “City of Ember” is more astute than wowing. Bright children will appreciate the sarcastic validation of what they’ve already suspected. Whereas adults might be moved to wonder if a kiddy flick on how to shop for long term care is next.

Still, while a bit less joyous than what we’d like to think is good for our children, director Gil Kenan’s handling of Caroline Thompson’s intricately woven adaptation of Jeanne Duprau’s book has chutzpah. Teaching Machiavellian politics on this level, or for that matter even thinking such an early start is crucial, can’t help but draw our curiosity.

But there it is, the underground City of Ember, a metaphor, dare we say, of our own civilization, replete with all its wiles, stratagems, foibles and dreams. Start off with Bill Murray as Mayor Cole. You don’t need a Kindergarten diploma to know the skinny on this fat cat. Laying out the same old, tired palaver, he seems to even bore himself.

It’s no more obvious than on Assignment Day when, as recent graduates pick their career destinies from a hat, he utters pat dribble about the importance of each position. Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), the typically handsome young protagonist, certainly isn’t buying it when His Honor extols the virtues of his appointment as messenger.

Although quick to roll his eyes at dreamer/inventor/dad’s (Tim Robbins) existentially phrased notions about what the future may hold, Doon nonetheless aspires to something better. He had hoped to work in the Generator, to find out why the lights are dimming. While Lina (Saoirse Ronan), the story’s pretty young damsel, drew the Pipeworks.

Well, we all know the Pipeworks is no place for such a winsome creature, especially one caring for a dotty old grandmother (Liz Smith) and a little sister (Amy Quinn). Not that Doon’s offer to switch jobs is entirely chivalrous. The Pipeworks isn’t the Generator, but it’s nearby. And Lina, whose last name is Mayfleet, can’t wait to make like Mercury.

Lina and Doon’s professions in place, their fates soon intertwine via discoveries they make. Privy to the mayor’s inner sanctum via her messengering, Lina can’t help but notice that, unlike the rest of Ember, there’s no food shortage here. Mr. Murray, always a rip as the villainous cad, can barely conceal the burps of his gluttony.

Meanwhile, whilst cautioned against making waves by Pipeworks lifer Sul (Martin Landau), Doon relentlessly explores among the dank and dingy streams. Evincing humankind’s best essence, the more he combs the catacombs the more he is convinced. There is a better world somewhere, and he’s just the boy to find it.

Of course, no adventure is complete without some special secret object to help unlock the mystery at hand. And though she doesn’t know it at first, Lina, the descendant of a past mayor, possesses such a MacGuffin. It’s a metal box cached in a closet, its contents the answer to questions concerning Ember’s past and potential.

The lore surrounding this eventual find isn’t too profuse or unwieldy, which is good news for those who don’t have much patience with recent cinema’s ubiquitous fake worlds. It’s just enough to impart that Ember had a fine heritage and that noble leaders of the past had made provisions for its future. Alas, poor Yorick, Democracy lost its way.

It’s all a rather neat bit of symbolism. Kids can relate. Taught the great ideals fostered by the Founding Fathers, they can’t help but notice that current leaders rarely emit such genius, vision or integrity. It’s tough to reconcile, and probably why they like fictitious lands.

This then might disappoint. To its greatest credit, “City of Ember” offers hope, not sanctuary. Tyler and Brittney won’t want to change places with the Dickensian moppets in its labyrinthine depths. Yet, because the simile is so thinly veiled, the revolutionary message is clear: No matter the timber of the times, ideas are what count.

This is by no means a guarantee to former Hippies who hope it’ll prepare their tots to take over the administration building at Columbia one day. However, that failing, career inspiration may spring from the movie’s second best attribute: set design. Filmed in the abandoned Belfast space where the Titanic was built, it adds a ghostly atmosphere.

Yet while director Kenan’s mini brave new world will find a small niche among young filmgoers, there’s not enough pop and frenzy to stir the imagination. Though kids may be more receptive to truth than adults, like their older counterparts they require some fantasy to wash down the lessons. And in this respect “City of Ember” proves a rather dry town.

“City of Ember,” rated PG, is a Fox-Walden release directed by Gil Kenan and stars Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway. Running time: 95 minutes


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